Learning from Teens: Thoughts for Teen Read Week

Teen Read Week is coming up October 12-18, and libraries are encouraged to use the theme “Turn Dreams into Reality” to share our knowledge, resources, services, and collections with teens in an effort to promote reading for fun. As professionals working with teens in the library, each of us curates our own personal collection—in folders and binders, dog-eared books and browser bookmarks, or just in our haphazardly cataloged heads—of resources that guide us in promoting reading. Yet as we inform our patrons about the epic books in our collection, the multiple formats in which they can check out our materials, and the research on the college success of avid readers, let’s not forget that some of our greatest resources are the very subjects of our resource-sharing: the teens themselves.

It’s an easy thing to forget since, as library professionals, we like to think of ourselves as the experts. In many things, we are. And in some, we aren’t. You know that book that won dozens of awards but you just can’t get any teens to pick up? How about the poorly-written piece of fluff that they can’t get enough of? In the end, we can only guess at what will go over well. Each person has his or her own individual taste, but more often than not, teens’ tastes will be more similar to one another’s than adults’ tastes will be to teens’.

Our goal during Teen Read Week is to promote reading for pleasure, and the only way to do that is to help connect teens with books they like. There may be a time and place for encouraging teens to read “healthier” books than the ones they want—that’s up for debate. But this week isn’t that time. If we want teens to learn that reading is fun, we need to think like teens. And while we can’t entirely re-wire our brains (and probably wouldn’t want to, having been through that angsty stage of life once already), many of us are lucky enough to spend enough time around teens that we have easy access to two simple techniques: observe and ask.

Most library staff are good at observing. Circulation stats are great for long-term trends. For the short-term, pay attention to reference questions and keep an eye on the “Just Returned” shelves. Displays and handouts can be useful, too. I once put up a “Take a Book, Leave a Book” display in which teens were encouraged to check out a book off the shelf and replace it with one of their favorite titles from the collection for someone else to discover. Or, leave some genre booklists near your YA stacks, and observe which go out the quickest.take a book 2

Asking is perhaps a less commonly used tool. Asking a teen what books she likes may seem less efficient than checking stats, but its impact is great in a different way. When we make a habit of asking teens their opinions, we show that their library is their own, and exists to meet their needs. We acknowledge that we, the “book experts,” respect and want to learn from their expertise. We begin a conversation that builds relationships, which lead to trust and a sense of community that allow us to better encourage the teens’ love of reading and the library. With further questioning, we can learn why a teen likes what she likes, and can use that knowledge to gain a deeper knowledge of teens’ reading preferences which will allow us to serve them better in a wider variety of situations. By encouraging them to talk about books, we help the teens learn to summarize and distill the core meaning or experience of a story. They practice explanatory and persuasive skills in telling us why the book was good.

Identify the best opportunities for conversing with teens about books in your job. For me, one opportunity is when walking from the Youth reference desk to the Teen Lounge to help a patron locate a title. Readers’ Advisory interactions are naturally a time to learn about someone’s reading tastes, especially if you ask why the patron enjoyed a certain title rather than coming up with readalikes based on your own criteria. Making a comment like “That’s a great book” or “That’s a very popular book” can sometimes spark a conversation. (Remember, you don’t always have to like the book. Saying something is popular or that you’ve talked to other teens who liked it is a great way to say something positive while getting around expressing your own opinion.)

If you are a collection developer, asking knowledgeable teens for their input on the collection encourages them to feel that they can make a difference in the library. When a teen asks me for manga suggestions, after helping him out I might say, “I am actually the person who decides which manga we buy for the library. Are there any we don’t have that you think we should?” I might ask the same question to someone I see reading manga in the Teen Lounge, if she seems willing and I get a good opening (I wouldn’t want to interrupt someone’s reading, of course). Most libraries have a suggestion process, but patrons might not know about it or might not take the initiative to use it, whereas they’d be happy to take a minute or two to respond to a direct question.

Keep in mind that some teens won’t want to talk, and if they don’t, don’t push it. The goal is to help them interact positively with books and the library, and if talking to library staff is not positive for the patron, then you are subverting your own goal.

We can learn a lot from professional literature, degree programs, conferences, and fellow library staff, but you can only learn about the unique characteristics of your own community by engaging with its members, and you can only learn what it is like to be a teen by talking to teens. Teens are often looking for opportunities to be seen as adults rather than children, and will appreciate your interest in their opinions. Meanwhile, you will be building a program that is truly centered on those you serve.

About Kylie Peters

Kylie Peters is the Middle School Librarian at Geneva Public Library in Illinois. She is passionate about building relationships and community, social justice, comics, middle school literature, gaming, technology, and reader’s advisory. She writes about middle school literature at http://www.flashlightchronicles.com.
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